Tag Archives: author choices

Can I have fried brains with that? Time management/productivity hacks for writers #amwriting #writingtips #timemanagement

The longest blog post in the world … probably.

This week I will be mostly talking about making something out of nothing, or as that pertains to my world: time management.

As many of you will remember, my lack of minutes in the day to do … well … anything much was a continuing trope in many of my posts last year. The frustration of not producing any meaningful work while any ‘free’ time melted away faster than the polar ice caps was strong, and the whinging on my blog extensive, as a result. Sorry about that.

However, good news, I think. It looks as if I’ve fixed it, possibly, or at least, bodged the problem enough for my writerly mojo to return. And as I bitched and complained my way through last year, I did realise that I’m not the only one who struggles with balancing their duties to others and their requirement to write. So I thought I’d share the stuff that has worked for me in the hope that, perhaps, it will help anyone reading this who has similar struggles. So off we go …

A long time ago in a galaxy far away …

Last November, actually, Mum was in hospital again, and as I tried to sort everything out, and write, and be a mum to my own son, a good daughter, and be happy, burnout loomed.

Once we got her sorted out, and back home with Dad, I knew that if I was going to carry on writing I would have to make changes, even if it was just changes to my attitude. And I was going to have to make them fast. I’m an old hand at this now. The trick is not so much as to solve the problem but to alter my thinking so I see it differently. This time the ‘solution’ I arrived at was twofold:

  1. I couldn’t write the kinds of books I had been writing and deal with the things I needed to do in Real Life. I would therefore write shorter, less complicated books.
  2. It was clear that many folks who read my books enjoyed the K’Barthan stuff best. And I knew K’Barth well. There wasn’t so much time for experimentation right then – so that was easy. I’d write shorter, less complicated stories about K’Barth.

Enter the new series of 99p K’Barthan Shorts. In a bid to discover more details about the ‘market’s’ demands I asked what people would like to see more of. Gladys, Ada and Their Trev was the answer from everyone.

Roughseas asked me to write on about how Betsy, on Turnadot Street, started her Bordello. The answer popped up almost immediately. Meanwhile there was another one about The Pan of Hamgee’s early years on the Blacklist. That popped up reasonably fast too. So I had two ideas for short stories ready to go. All that was left was to write them.

Keenly aware that I can’t actually guarantee myself more than about 40 minutes to write in each day, it occurred to me that one of the problems with my rate of production was that its slowness sapped my morale, resulting in even less speed. So making some steady progress was essential to keep up my spirits and keep going. Obviously, as an authorholic, I am, literally addicted – stopping would have been much more sensible but it wasn’t an option. I decided to try and find a way to write more efficiently. I had a bit of a think and I came up with five ways that I could, possibly, give myself a hand:

  1. There might be some book production tools I could use to speed up and ease the process – such as writing software or text-to-speech software.
  2. Planning and plotting a bit before I start would help if I could tie it into the way I write.
  3. Writing shorter and less complicated stories would reduce the cerebral load (as previously mentioned).
  4. If I could improve my time management I might achieve more in the moments I had,
  5. My brain was fairly porridgey and I needed to find a way to re-enthuse it and sharpen it up while avoiding burnout.

1. Production tools

Yes, I am aware this sounds nuts but it occurred to me that one of the problems I face, writing, is that I usually keep the whole plot in my head. This is fine until I’m sad, or  stressed about other stuff, or my writing routine is constantly interrupted. Then, I can’t do it. I lose track of who is doing what, and with what, and to whom. When I make notes to help myself I still fail to remember, or at least, I fail to visualise what’s happening where, so written notes are unhelpful. So back in November 2016 I was spending three quarters of each writing session working out where I’d got to and catching up, and then about five minutes moving it forward before I had to stop.

As I pondered how to solve this knotty conundrum I saw a free seminar by a bloke called Joseph Michael about using a writing programme called Scriviner. Now, I confess, I’d never thought about using Scriviner, it seemed completely pointless, but I couldn’t help noticing, as I watched this free seminar, that the way you lay out a project in Scrivener appeared to cover a couple of my big writing problems.

  • Finding a way to list major scenes in a memorable way so I can work out a cohesive plot
  • Finding something that can remember what’s happened so far, and where I’ve got to, when my head can’t in a way that’s instinctive and at-a-glance.
  • Being able to put bits I like but can’t use yet somewhere close to hand so I can just nip over and cut and paste them in and out and remember they are there.
  • Being able to flip from my writing to my research easily  if I want to.
  • Being able to fit more writing into a short time.
  • In short, having all the information and prompts I need to write effectively in one place without burying one room of my house in post it notes.

The way Joseph Michael had his demo Scrivener set up, everything was laid out on screen where I could see it. My mental filing system is visual and it works horizontally. My ideal filing system would be a huge long table, with all the work in progress laid out on it. I’d walk up and down the table and see what needs to be done. If I try to file things vertically, in stacked trays or in drawers I forget they are there and cannot visualise what I am supposed to be doing or the shape of my task. I lose things in a pile.

My computer is a drawer – even using WordPerfect to write doesn’t fully ameliorate the impact of that, despite the fact it has its documents in tabs and I can switch from one to another with a single click. Things get lost and forgotten in my computer. Important things. Scrivener looked as if it might be the computer equivalent of a table rather than drawers, and when I found it on sale for  75% off, I decided to try it.

Bonus! Except While it was, indeed, the closest thing a computer can produce, in organising and filing terms, to a table, it was incredibly frustrating to use because it’s very much NOT intuitive in some respects. So I bought the training course for a truckload of money. BUT ONLY because it has a 365 day money back guarantee. No 30 day nonsense. A whole damn year. If I get stuck, I look up the problem on the course site, watch the video, which lasts about 3 minutes and I’m set. I am quite quick to pick up computer stuff but even so this worked very well for me. The way it’s set out is like an encyclopedia you can look things up in, rather than a course of long lessons which you annotate. Thus you sidestep the thing where your mind wanders as you take notes and you leave out a crucial click or step, one that renders your notes worthless and necessitates spending 30 minutes of your 40 minutes’ writing time watching a video, from beginning to end, to sort out where you went wrong. It’s way more useful than I expected, almost indispensable. Indeed, it’s probably paid for itself already to be honest. Bugger. Won’t be getting that refund then.

Around this time, I also saw McOther dictating email replies into his iPad and a light dawned. I could speak my books. However, after discovering that there is no way to teach my iPad how to write ‘eyebombing’ when I say ‘eyebombing’ and having the same experience with many other words like that, I reckoned it would be more trouble than it was worth. Even doing some dictation for my non-fiction book where I used the word, ‘spectacles’ instead of eyebombing – with a view to using search and replace, later – it was, frankly, too much of a ball ache. It occurred to me that the whole process of teaching speech-to-text software to understand my vocabulary, the correct spelling for the word arse and all the rest might take a lot more time than it would save. Doubtless I will give it a go at some point, but for the moment, I think I’ll put it in the someday-my-prince-will-come section of my list.

2. Planning and Plotting

Obviously what I envisioned achieving for myself here is far removed from compiling a comprehensive plot and then sketching the story by numbers.  I am, at heart, a pantser. However, it did occur to me that I could save myself a lot of time if I could kick the habit of developing so much backstory that my first scene ends up being one of the last ones. This is how I write: I get to know my characters, get interested in their pasts and before I know it, a new story has emerged. It’s usually a better one but having it turn up a bit earlier in proceedings would save me … well 60k of wasted words last year so, in short, the entirety of last year’s output (some of those words will be rescued or recycled but not all 60k).

I heard about a free seminar promoting a course called Story Engines. Story Engines sounds brilliant, but I can’t afford it. It didn’t help that there was only a short window, during the zenith – or is that the nadir – of the Christmas and post Christmas bankruptcy period. Why does everyone who runs a $500 closed course think a good time to open it up is December when everyone is skint? Sorry, I digress. The seminar was pretty good and opened my eyes to the kinds of questions I should ask myself. Questions which I thought I was asking already but clearly haven’t been. However, I could only afford one course and I thought that, possibly, I would work out more of the plotting stuff on my own than I would the workings of Scrivener. And the Scrivener course cost less. A lot less.

And I still have about 335 days in which to decide whether or not I like it! So I bought it.

3. Writing shorter

An absolute epic fail. For example, I’ve binned 20k of the ‘short’ about how Betsy’s bordello opened and I’m now just bubbling under 29,000 words into the new one. I think I may squish it into about 40,000 but it could run to 60,000. On the upside, I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN. Yeh. Thank you, Story Engines free training and lovely easy-to-see-what’s-going-on Scrivener layout. The magic is still happening, the picture is slowly de-pixilating and sliding into focus and the process is fun again. I also have a very much clearer idea of how Space Dustmen, the new series I’m working on, is going to go, and I’m really enjoying making notes and thinking about ideas. The characters are more focussed and yeh, things are happening there, too. Oh and there’s a non-fiction book.

On the writing shorter books front, then, null points. But on the writing, generally, a massive booyacka!

4. Time Management

We talked about the minuscule size of my writing window. How to make those minutes count then?

Scrivener was surprisingly useful and the plotting was helping but it was only a partial success. My efforts to write were still resulting in redundant words. Cf that 20,000 odd I mentioned just now and the other 40,000 from last year. Even though I will probably use three quarters of them, tweaked, a bit later in their prerequisite stories it was fairly essential that I did something to increase my rate of production and increase the suitability for immediate use of the stuff I produced.

So far, I’d some ideas plotted that I was really chuffed with, I’d laid out the basic chapters I thought I was going to write in Scrivener, added some notes, done the cards etc. But I needed more.

Somewhere, I read that comparing notes with other writers and posting your progress daily can really motivate you so I started a thread on a forum I visit. I’d also read that doing sprints works well for many people. You set a timer for twenty minutes and write until it goes off, have a 5 minute break and then rinse and repeat. I thought I’d see what I could do with that. I reckoned if I spent the first twenty minutes planning the scene and maybe writing a bit, and then the next twenty, going for it, I might get somewhere. No distractions, nothing, just writing the rest. So that day, I started my thread and explained what I was going to do. Then I turned off the internet, opened scrivener, sat down with the pinger set to twenty minutes and off I went.

Well.

That was a fucking eye opener I can tell you.

First sprint: 400 words, second 1000. Smecking Norah! Four weeks later, I have 28,800 words down. Even a hard, pulling-teeth-style sprint nets me 400 words. Just three of those sprints, ie an hour and a quarter given over to writing, and we are looking at 1,200 words, minimum. My record in one 20 minutes is 1,700. Typing. Every morning I can wake up knowing that, even if I only have half an hour to work that day, I can get a few hundred words done. Few things boost a writer’s spirits better than being productive.

I love the sprints and I love the camaraderie of chatting on the thread where we encourage each other and compare results. Definitely a really effective strategy, that one.

5. Avoiding staleness: saying, ‘bollocks’ to social media and making it quality time

With the sprints, Scriviner and even the plotting going well. I wondered if I could work on my freshness of approach. What I mean is, trying to persuade my times of  maximum brainpower to coincide with the times I had available to write.

After a lot of head-scratching it occurred to me that this writing game is a bit like a relationship in many respects. Sometimes, with dating, less is more. Three hours of quality time are worth many more hours of half cock time spent not really connecting that just make the whole thing go stale. I realised that, when quality writing time was thin on the ground, I was spending hours on social media while I did other things looking at emails, or generally staring at my iPad and phone to try and keep myself connected to the electronic ether and with that, somehow, to my writing. Even sitting at home in the evening watching tv, or while I was cooking, or some other situation in which I could never hope to produce any meaningful content for my books I would be gazing soulfully at the screen convincing myself it would help.

It didn’t.

While, on one hand, all this screen time made me feel as if I was maintaining the connection, on the other it fogged it, made me feel as if it was sapping my creativity somehow. And the more in touch with it all I tried to be, the more time was sucked into this faux ‘keeping in touch’, and the less time I spent actually writing. Across my wider life, writing was all I was doing … Oh and panicking about having no time. I did a lot of that. So as well allowing my brain to be gloopified by the wrong kind of screen time, I was starving it of stimulation. No fuel. Poor brain. How could I expect inspiration?

More head-scratching, and then I decided to try and make all the time I had count, across the board, not just in writing but in everything. So I limited social media and marketing time and added other things to my day, experiences, like coffee with a friend, a walk, reading, listening to music, shopping, eyebombing, etc. I also tried switching off the computer at six pm and not turning it on again until the next morning. I still checked my emails and social media first thing as I sat in bed with a cup of coffee. However, I started writing a to do list for the day at the same time. Then when I sat down at the computer after the school run it was easy to reorientate myself. I started experimenting with using sprints to write emails and social media posts. I listed things I needed to look at, set up a sprint to do it in and then stopped when the bell rang. I found I could achieve exactly the same amount of interaction in a fraction of the time. In the evenings, in front of the telly, I stopped checking Facebook on my phone and started knitting socks. Um … Yeh.

The results of this have been amazing. I have way more creativity. When I started this, a month or so ago, there was only really room in my head for one project. After a week, I started having ideas about a project I’d shelved because it was too complicated. After two weeks the short had turned into a novel. After three, a non fiction project popped up. It looks as if I may finish a novel this year. One that I only started writing in earnest four weeks ago. It is as if this simple act of giving my brain time to rest has jump-started my creative mojo. Yes I still get tired, I still get sad about my parents, I still have the odd week of PMT when I can’t meaningfully achieve anything but I also feel fulfilled and fantastic because I am creating stuff – and when I feel like that I create more stuff – and even when it’s not books, it’s very comfortable socks!

Conclusion

So what gave I learned here that might help anyone who has waded through to the end of this? D’you know, I think probably this:

  • Being open to new ideas and open-minded about trying new things can result in solutions you never believed possible. I am really surprised at how helpful Scrivener is, for example, and would never have tried it had it not been flagged as a godsend by a couple of the book selling gurus I follow.
  • Looking at problems from different angles can really help to solve them.
  • A writer’s brain is just like a computer, you need to put stuff in to get stuff out – although unlike computers, I find that putting rubbish into a brain doesn’t necessarily diminish output quality. But the biggie is input. Input has to happen for output.
  • Avoid getting stale.
  • Keep trying! I’m beginning to think that the people who achieve stuff are the folks who never give up. And I’ve discovered this by achieving stuff (in my own very small way but it feels big to me) because I can’t give up. So I’m beginning to think that, within reason, if you try to achieve something for long enough, and work hard enough at it, something WILL happen, even if it’s not what you were expecting. Or to put it another way, when life throws you lemons then yes, take time, lick your wounds, nurse your bruises, regroup … and make lemon meringue pie.
20160412_mandslemon

Pie-ify me big boy!

 

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Filed under About My Writing, Blimey!, General Wittering, Good Advice, Useful Resources

I bring you tidings of great joy … probably.

I hope this finds you well and that you survived hurricane Doris, if it hit your part of the world. We have, although unfortunately, it appears that our garden fence has not. It’s currently lying prone in the garden but at least it’s not blocking the street anymore! So, it occurred to me that I should, perhaps, make this week’s blog post a little lighter in tone. To that end, I bring you freebies and some writing news.

First up, writing news, because I’m not egocentric or anything. Phnark!If you follow my rantings and witterings on a regular basis, you may remember me saying I was going to try and write some shorter stuff. This was, mainly, because my life circumstances aren’t always conducive to writing long, complicated stuff. To that end, you will be glad to know that I’m now 26,500 words into another ‘short’ story about K’Barth. I have also binned 19,000 words, or at least reallocated them for use somewhere else, because they don’t fit with this story, because, as is my wont, I started in the wrong place. I really, really hope I’ll be able to stop doing that one day, but on the upside, at least it means I usually get two books when I work on one.

It looks as if this will probably pan out at about 40k words, possibly 60k so, I think we can safely say that as efforts to write a short go, it’s an epic fail. It might, however, see me end up finishing an novel in record time if it continues the way it is. Mwah hahahargh. Swings and roundabouts, eh? It’s all go!

In addition, the Space Dustmen characters are getting excessively antsy and their world is becoming more and more vivid so I am going to have to write something about them soon, or they’ll find and have a word. They are indentured labourers living at a space base and obviously, as the scum of the earth, they all live near the sewage processing plant, on P Deck. Oh ho ho! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you saw that joke here first! I’m just letting it ferment for bit more – the story I mean, not the sewage on P Deck – so it’s more obvious where I’m going when I start working on it again.

Lastly, on the writing news front, I thought I might have a pop at some non-fiction. This is a project that I may even try to do the trad way, I’ll have a think. However, I was out taking photos for it this morning and having thought I was nowhere near, I now find that I easily have enough illustrations to compile the book.

20170225_131746

Happy me!

So, what else do I have for you this month? Two lovely promos, that’s what. Yep!
First up, the lovely Andrew Q Gordon is running a promo for fantasy books this month. There are ten books featured and you can grab yourself a freebie in return for mailing list sign up. To find out more, the promo page is here or click the picture. This one runs from 27th February to 3rd March.

aqg-fantasy-giveaway-option-2

Second up, once again, Patty Jansen is running a monthly promo which segues effortlessly into position on 4th and 5th March, just as Andrew Q Gordon’s promo finishes! Handy.

This one is for no strings attached free books on either Instafreebie and Bookfunnel. So, no mailing list sign up is required but you need to feel confident side loading them to your reader/tablet/computer yourself.

You can cop a load of that one, here or click on the picture, as before.

promomarch2017home

Anyway, I hope the promos are useful. I was rather chuffed to see that they are are full of fresh books (to me). So I’m hoping there is lots of interesting stuff in them for you too.

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Filed under About My Writing, Author Updates, General Wittering

Evolved or spun? Meet my shorts. Born Free: news, views and free books … #giveaway #sffbooks

First of all, thanks to everyone who responded – in the comments or by email – to my rant last week. My folks are a lot better, which is heartening, and their new boiler is fitted. Things are calm for the moment, although I’ll probably have to try and get them to a funeral some time in the next couple of weeks. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I also did reasonably well at the Bury Christmas Fayre this year, in fact I ran out of copies of Few Are Chosen, which was a good predicament to be in but also a bit annoying. I did £470 over three days, £12 more than I did on my best year, in two, but a full £170 more than last year – although they hadn’t put me next to a stall selling brand new, best selling kids and teen books for £1 a pop this year, which was a relief.

There has been more time to reflect over my life and career this week, to, and I am feeling on a slightly more even keel. I have stepped down as editor of the parish mag, freeing up a minimum of seven hours a month and after Roughseas’ question in response to my last post, I started a short story to explain exactly how Betsy Coed did end up running the Bordello on Turnadot Street. Amazingly, it’s moving along nicely and I now have a princely 4009 words in the bag – only 16,000 to go then. Not so bad; if I keep up progress at this rate, it’ll be done in 4 weeks. It won’t, of course, but I will be done a lot quicker than I usually am and might even manage to squidge a second in before the summer holidays begin.

At the same time, the longer stuff has started moving again, so I’ve written a couple of thousand words of the work in progress, too – which is the first in a series and not set in K’Barth. However, I have made the usual discovery, a third in, that what I’m really writing is book two. So I’ve had to take stock a bit, go back and start book 1.

Isn’t it bizarre? Nothing has changed, I’m still trying to write a mix of full length novels and, in an ideal world, some shorter stories to go with. However, instead of seeing it like that, I’ve simply switched priorities, put the short stories as the priority and the novels on the ‘in an ideal world’ back burner, swapped a difficult goal for an easy one. The result? Suddenly I’ve made more progress on both in a week than I have in the preceding two months! So it just goes to show how important it is to look at things in the right way – or perhaps, that I’m so credulous that I can even do spin and puff on myself! Or possibly CBT.

Anyway, a propos of the shorts, I’d really appreciate your help with something. If you have a burning question about K’Barth, the back story to the series, the back story to the characters, anything characters do ‘off stage’ over the story line of the series, can you let me know what it is in the comments? I will then answer it, using the medium of the short story, because a few questions will really help to get this kickstarted.

Second thing, I am taking part in a giveaway this month. A group of science fiction and fantasy authors have got together and we are all giving our books away for free. You don’t have to sign up to anyone’s mailing list or jump through any hoops, AND you don’t have to be tied to one particular book retailer. You can go to the page for your favourite retailer and download the books that interest you.

To find out more, just click on this smashing graphic, here.

pattyjansenpromodec16

 

 

 

 

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Filed under About My Writing, Author Updates, General Wittering

My Permafree Experience … #bookmarketing #nicholasrossis

This week, I have mostly been doing a guest appearance on Nicholas Rossis’ excellent blog. He invited me to write about why I made Few Are Chosen free and why, for me, that has been a good move. If you’re into that sort of thing and want to know more, you can find the post here:

http://nicholasrossis.me/2016/05/17/my-permafree-experience-guest-post-by-m-t-mcguire/

 

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A question of perception

It’s another ‘I’m an idiot, learn from me’ post today. It’s also long. Apologies for that but there’s rather a lot to say.

Recently I’ve been trying to get the initial ideas and machinery in place to launch a new book. There are several places where I’m stuck, mostly the same, old same old: you know, stuff like actually managing to write a blurb that makes it sound appealing or coming up with a viable title. There is also the aspect of things I might unknowingly stuff up.

OK, so I try to act with professional integrity. This is the internet. Whatever I do I will offend someone but I try avoid any dishonourable, shabby, dishonest or generally reprehensible behaviour if at all possible. I try to love my internetty neighbour the way I’d like to be loved myself.

However, I’m a writer and a flawed human being. I frequently offend people without even realising. Indeed, if life was a game I suspect unwitting offence would be my Special Attribute. A couple of things have happened, recently, that have made me very aware of this and concentrated my attention on the matter of how hard it is to achieve a good reputation on the internet, how difficult it is not to cause offence, however well meaning your actions may actually be. And how difficult it can be to gauge how others will react to your actions when the only guide you have is to imagine how it would feel to be on the receiving end.

It’s not just about trying to act with decency and integrity at all times. It’s about whether people think think you are. A lot of that is about what folks believe your intentions are. I think that no matter how genuine you wish to be, how honest you think you are being, or how principled you aim to make your approach, if you are selling anything, however obliquely, there are certain quarters of the internet where any attempt to connect on your part will be considered a hypocritical attempt to befriend people in order to sell them something. So far with me, it’s kind of been the other way round. But a couple of things have really surprised me, recently. Stupid things I’ve done without realising they were stupid.

On the up side, since I’ve made these monumental fuck ups, it means that by describing them to you at length I can ensure that you don’t have to. Here’s what I’ve learned from this series of unfortunate events…

The dreadful truth about titles.

I’ll fess up. I got in a bit of a muddle publishing my last two books. The main problem was that when I finished the third book in the K’Barthan Trilogy (as it was then called) I discovered it was a snadge over 300,000 words long. What to do? If I produced a paperback then, by the time I’d factored in the kind of discount that would pay the middle men (60%) I would have a book that cost about £25. So there’s book 1 at £9.99, book 2 at £11.99 and book 3 at £24.99. With books 1 and 2 ending on cliff hangers it does rather look as if I’m holding readers to ransom to find out what happens. Luckily there was a point where I could split it. So I did. But that cost more. Another £800 or so to be precise and another £90 plus 20% sales tax to upload it to the print on demand distributor I use.

With money tight, the question raised it’s head of spending a further £90 plus tax per book to change the word ‘Trilogy’ on the cover and front pages of the first two, to ‘Series’ in print. Also, what little traction the series had was as the K’Barthan Trilogy. I asked folks, took advice and tried to imagine how I would feel if a trilogy I was following had four books. The folks I asked reckoned a 4 book trilogy was not unusual and that no-one would mind. Since I’ve read the Hitch Hiker’s ‘trilogy’ and was delighted when it kept growing, rather than upset, I saved the £180 and went for the 4 book trilogy.

How wrong I was.

A couple of months ago the third book got a blistering one star review, slamming me for writing a fourth instalment. I paraphrase but the gist was like this:

“I know your game,” it basically said. “You’re just going to write book after book and never end the story, because you’re just a bastard writer! And all you bastard writers ever want to do is rip readers off and make us pay and pay so you can buy another set of gold plated wheels for your Mercedes Benz. Well I’m not reading any more of your crap you… charlatan!”

Fair enough, this case, someone has clearly watched too many episodes of ‘Lost’, and that £50 a month I earn from my writing may well look like the gold-plated-alloy-purchasing big time to some folks, but I was completely thrown. First that they were upset, second by the enormous gap between their perception of my personality and the real one.

OK, we all know the golden rule is DO NOT ENGAGE. NEVER reply to things like that.

I broke it.

I commented on the review apologising for causing offence, explaining that it wasn’t intended, that the story ends at the conclusion of the fourth book (in case anyone else reading that review wondered) and then I offered to send it to them for free so they could find out what happened. They never replied. I went and changed the title from ‘trilogy’ to ‘series’ in all the ebook files and on all the listings on every retail site I sell through – it already said it in the product desription. Naturally the retailers all accepted my chages except for Amazon who asserted that if it said ‘trilogy’ on the book cover (even if it’s too small to read) it will be called ‘trilogy’ until I pay the designers to change the j-peg and upload the new one.

I chalked it up as something to watch and a change to do when I brief the designers about my next book.

During last year, I entered both books for the excellent Wishing Shelf Book Awards. When the feedback came through I was very surprised to discover that readers there, too, had commented negatively about my writing a ‘trilogy’ of four books.

Clearly, something that hadn’t registered with me was really pissing other people off. So what have I learned from this litany of amateurism?

  1. Give yourself options.
    My four book ‘trilogy’ has royally ticked off a whole bunch of people. Folks I will never get back. Folks who will consider me a wanker forever and spread their opinions near and far. But the problem would never have existed if I’d had the wit to call it the K’Barthan Series from the get go. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, so learn from mine: if you’re writing a trilogy then, in the name of the almighty don’t call it that. Call it a series unless it’s actually finished, has three books the same length, and you are about to publish the first one.
  2. Give yourself some slack.
    Accept there are some things you can cover with research and some things that only experience will show you but.
  3. When experience does kick you in the teeth, learn from it.
  4. If you can repair the damage, do it as soon as you can but think it through, don’t hurry it or you may just make things worse.
    OK, so I can’t afford to get rid of the bloody ‘trilogy’ moniker until the entire series is edited at the end of November. The covers, I can, and will, change sooner. For now I just have to accept that I’ve fucked up, chalk it up to experience and learn from what I have done.

The grim truth about interacting on the internet.

The second smack in the face from reality came this week.

Recently, I’ve had a facebook ad running which offers the first two books in the K’Barthan Series to anyone who joins my mailing list. I’d heard that a good way to identify a market of people to show your ad to is to choose an audience who like books by an author similar to you. It then suggests you make reference to the author you, and they, know and love and suggest that if they like that stuff they might like yours. I’m always a bit leery about this, I mean, all those reviews saying I write like Adams are just setting folks up for disappointment because I don’t. But I thought it might work with a humorous bent if I aimed it at Pratchett readers.

After a bit of tweaking and watching and tweaking I ended up with an audience who liked Terry Pratchett books and an ad which referenced CMOT Dibbler.

OK, in my defence here, I wrote the copy while Sir Terry was still around but this is what it said:

“If you like funny British science fiction and fantasy why not check out this freebie: The K’Barthan Series stands complete at four books and I’d like to give you two of them. Yes, this all sounds a bit CMOT Dibbler school of marketing but I’m hoping you’ll find a lot more quality literary meat in these books than there is REAL meat in CMOT Dibbler’s sausages.

All you have to do is tell me where to send them – the books, obviously, real sausages will not be involved.”

Then there was this picture and the title and caption below.

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“I’M LITERALLY cutting my own throat here.

If you love a bargain, help yourself to two award winning funny sci-fi fantasy books, Few Are Chosen and The Wrong stuff, parts 1 and 2 of the best selling K’Barthan Series are usually £4 but they’re free for a limited time. To grab yours click here.”

To start with, I got sign ups, shares and a couple of joky quotes about the quality of the meat – is it named? Yes it’s called Bob. In other words, exactly what I expected. Then a few days ago, from New Zealand, this:

Pep A: Ripping off a Terry Pratchett character to sell your book? Poor form?
Pep B: Poor form? Fucking shameful.

And I looked at it and I thought… what happened there? And then the ad got this comment:

Pep C: Well. He’s dead now.

And the penny dropped.

Yes M T you daft, fucking moron! He died. And so suddenly this ad is not joking about characters we know and love from a favourite author. It’s trampling over people’s memories of a great man and maligning the dead. Events can cause changes in perception. And I completely missed that. So I’ve removed the ad. Because although it was working really well I didn’t think of that, and while, personally, I think it’s a bit weird to be offended, I do absolutely get why someone might be.

Have I replied or apologised? Well… no, because of another particularly important thing that I’ve learned about the internet, so that you don’t have to is that it’s bat shit crazy, and also:

  1. The international nature of the internet is a two edged sword…
    Yes, you can talk to the entire globe. Unfortunately, not all of it thinks the way you do. That means you can and will offend thousands of people effortlessly and unwittingly at the touch of a button: not just people in Britain but folks all over the world.Seriously though, I’m not American, from the RSA, Kenya or Zimbabwe. I’m not Australian, or a Kiwi, or Tasmanian or from India, Pakistan or South East Asia. I’m not from Holland, Germany, France, Russia or any of the myriad other places where people speak English and read my books, in English. I lack the instinctive grasp of other cultures that will enable me to see the point when funny becomes offensive to them if it doesn’t to someone British. But because I’m speaking English and they speak English too, THEY EXPECT ME TO.
  2. The internet contains a huge gap in perception.
    The aforementioned gulf between the spirit in which I act and interact on line, who I think I am, and what others perceive me to be. Frankly, it’s enormous. 90% of communication is non verbal and boy does it show on t’interweb – mainly through the medium of folks becoming very suspicious of one another. And what that equates to, if you’re selling anything, anywhere on line, is an assumption that nothing you do is genuine. That everything is crafted, honed and perfected with your eye on the next sale.So while you’re trying to just be, write a blog, do stuff, keep people informed, have a presence that’s just yourself: a benign and friendly presence, there are folks out there who will dismiss it as the work of a rapacious scammer who sees everyone as a potential victim (including them, unless they’re ‘careful’ a.k.a. prickly, aggressive and ready to take offence at the drop of a hat).
  3. 3. People are going to drop their weird shit onto you.
    There’s a saying, ‘you can please some of the people some of the time but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.’ I understand this but it seems that in today’s world, if you do anything that might put your name into the public domain, like paint, write, make music, act etc you are expected to please everyone, all of the time. Worse, if you don’t, no quarter will be given.Genuine mistakes, or simple errors of of judgement, far from being forgiven, are seen as an act of cynical aggression towards your innocent audience. A lot of people out there don’t really like themselves. They think they’re cynical, cold hearted conniving little shits, and guess what? Because they believe that about themselves they’re going to believe it about you too.
  4. Give them some slack. Try to stay positive and accept that sometimes you will offend others and it can’t always be helped.
    Long ago, I decided not to worry about the nature of the net. I am who I am and it’s hard to be anyone else. I know I will make mistakes and all I can do is try not to. It’s worth making peace with yourself and accepting that sometimes, no matter how benign you want to be and how hard you try to avoid hurting people, you will cause offence. Sometimes all you can do is apologise, chalk it up to experience, learn from it and move on. Sometimes our attempts to interact with people we don’t actually know personally, can be interpreted, by some as evidence that we’re out to get them in some way. It doesn’t matter how much cobblers that is, they’ve been burned by others and but there’s no way we will ever convince folks like that of our good intentions. There’s no point even trying. Indeed, the only thing you can do about them is hope to heaven that they never, ever find you.

So what can we do? How can writers or artists or anyone creative who interacts regularly on the internet behave ‘well’ without becoming too slick, too spun and anodyne?

Perhaps we can’t. Or perhaps all we can do is our level, genuine best to avoid saying anything that would offend us if you were on the receiving end. Do unto others and all that.

If you’re laid back and you write humour which, by its nature, is subversive you will undoubtedly prick the bubble of the pompous at some stage. But you may also stuff up and the way I have though sheer naivety, lack of foresight or plain ignorance and unwittingly offend many, many folks – good decent people who you don’t want to upset. When you do, I guess the only course is to chalk it up to experience – apologise if appropriate/possible and move on.

Few people do things deliberately to offend, whatever many internet users think. Most of us offend because we’re human, and flawed; and that’s natural. If we never cocked it up we’d be actual God. Because perfect is impossible unless you’re Allah, right?

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What am I doing here?

Do you ever have the feeling you’ve slipped into a different version of the universe by mistake? Sometime I feel as if I’m living another MTM’s life where the basic essentials are the same but some of the bits around the edges are… not what I thought. I can’t quite explain this but it’s usually at times when I look at the zeitgeist around me and then at what I do and think… ‘ah.’

This cropped up in two respects this week. First, because as a fairly avid reader of Chuck Wendig’s blog (you really should check it out) I read his post about 10 books that had stayed with him and took up his invitation, at the end, to list the ten books that stayed with me. You can check out the post and read everyone’s comments (including  mine) here. What interested me was that the books that had stayed with people were all pretty heavyweight, barring one person, who, like I did, listed Green Eggs and Ham. But basically, the mood is academic. And serious. And then I turn up.

Here are ten of the books that have had the biggest effect on me:

THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW, CS Lewis. My parents read all the Narnia books to me and my brother as kids. I thought all books were like that. I didn’t realise there was a special pariah genre for them all.

FAIR STOOD THE WIND FOR FRANCE H E Bates. H E Bates can describe a summers day and just put you right there. This is just a wonderfully uplifting story and I loved it.

THE CHILDREN OF THE NEW FOREST Frederick Mayerat. Another fantastic book which my parents read to me as a kid. It has people with big hats and swords in it. What more could you want?

A GENTLEMAN OF FRANCE, Stanley Weyman. More hats and swords, in France this time.

THE THREE MUSKETEERS Alexander Dumas. Cracking historical novel. More Swords and big hats, with the odd heaving bosom thrown in for good measure.

THE ASTERIX BOOKS by Goschinny and Uderzo. Yes. All of them. I first read them when I was about five. After that, each year I grew I got more of the jokes. Multi-layered masterful humour. And silly names.

THE HITCH HIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY Douglas Adams. Because that’s how you do brainy comedy.

GREEN EGGS AND HAM Dr Seuss. The world of Dr Seuss – particularly Tweetle beetles from Fox in Sox has me completely hooked. That’s where my own fantasy world building started. With the weirder offerings of Dr Deuss. But I like green eggs and ham best.

WYRD SISTERS and THE NIGHT WATCH by Terry Pratchett. Because Terry writes the most fantastic stuff and I love it.

ABOUT A BOY Nick Hornby. Poignant, intelligent and laugh out loud funny.

A SPOT OF BOTHER, Mark Haddon. Ditto.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, Bill Bryson. Bryson makes a history funny. It’s densely written. You can’t read too much at a time because it’s the literary equivalent of an enormous cream cake. Little and often is the way to read this. But it is absolutely fab. Actually, anything Bryson writes is a scream.

Looking at it now, I missed out, PRACTICALLY EVERYTHING BY GRAHAM GREENE (whose name I can’t remember how to spell) and PRACTICALLY EVERYTHING BY OSCAR WILDE. If I could write one piece of work like The Importance of Being Earnest I would consider my work as an author done.

Looking at my list compared to the books on the others it struck me how very out of step with the popular zeitgeist I am. Lots very serious books by people like Melville, Poe, Atwood, Hosseni… A fair bit of GRRM, CS Lewis, Herbert and King. Nobody mentioned Pratchett as far as I recall although I think someone mentioned Douglas Adams.

Find a forum about books and the authors everyone bangs on about seem to be the likes of Steinback, Hemingway, Poe, King, Herbert, Melville, Hemingway, GRRM….  American authors. Always American. No-one mentions HE Bates, no-one mentions Greene. Perhaps, most Americans – and we have to face it, the English speaking internet has a very strong US bias even though there are more of us, from other nations, than them – haven’t heard of Bates or Greene, or other greats like George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde or Sir John Betjamin, just as I haven’t read Steinback or Melville (yet). But going back to the blog post, the onus of that set of comments does seem to be on cutting edge, horror or high brow.

It made me realise how inept I am at trying to be edgy.

It also highlighted the career decision that lies ahead of me now; heart or head. Let me explain. I started out with a budget that would cover six books. But due to the requirement to edit K’Barthan 1 again and again and the need for a proof edit after the copy edit I’ve blown that budget on four books. I thought six was a good buffer but to be honest I expected to earn enough to produce a low budget book once I’d published two or three. I’ve published four and that may yet happen. It may but it’s not looking too hopeful.

So what now?

The K’Barthan Series was completely self indulgent. I wrote exactly what I wanted to write, and I wrote it with a passion. In an ideal world that’s what I’ll do. But I’m beginning to realise that K’Barth is quite… out there. But… in the wrong way. It’s up front but not edgy enough, it’s weird but not scary enough. It’s not normal. It’s a book syndrome. It’s a bit socially lumpy.

Mwahahahahargh! I’ve produced the literary equivalent of myself!

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Then I swing back the other way and convince myself it’s fine. Comfort myself with stories of people like Anne Magill, who studied fine art at Liverpool and then went to London (St Martin’s) where she met solid resistance from her tutors to her style. She stayed true to it, though, and is now a hugely successful painter selling works to people like Russell Crowe.

Nice.

She says (Anne Magill, I mean):

“I ended up going into commercial design because figurative traditional work was frowned upon,” but, she added, “If I’m damned I’m damned. I can only do what’s in my head.”

She followed her heart and now she’s doing OK.

Then there’s Kate Bush. Look at the pop scene in the late 1970s and early 80s. You’ve got punk, two tone, mods doing the usual do and then the odd M.O.R. hangover from the disco era. Where in the name of all that’s holy to you put our Kate Bush among all that? Her output is completely crazy, it’s quirky, her voice is weird, her choices of subject for her songs is esoteric, at best, and at worst barking loola. But people liked it anyway because it’s so honest and genuine, oh and it’s also good.

That’s what I want. For my stuff to be honest and genuine and good. And for me to be right in believing.

But am I? Or am I just being a self-indulgent, jumped-up twat? Someone called me a hack in a review the other day. It was oblique, as in ‘hack habits’ but it smarted. A lot. And the worst thing. It’s probably true.

When I wrote the K’Barthan Series, I wanted to show myself and all the naysayers that I can write like this and succeed. I reasoned that, if I liked it, other people would. And some do. And I am beyond grateful to each and every one of you who has bought it, read it, reviewed it. But it is a hard sell. And I’m realising that all the publishing people who said the names were stupid, the plot too involved, the level of intellect I assumed for my readers too high… I’m realising that unfortunately, if I want to make enough money to pay for another book, they might be right.

That’s probably why the big self publishing sites like Big Al’s Books and Pals and Bookbub won’t touch Few Are Chosen. Because when it comes down to it, even in self published author land, the big fish want the same commercial criteria that publishers want. And it’s all very well trying to prove something actually does work, but for that to happen, readers have to know it’s there. And it’s almost impossible to get it in front of them. Except off line, in the real world, where you need stock that costs money I don’t have. It’s a bit chicken and egg to be honest.

So the nub of it all is that I’m suffering a bit of a conundrum as to what I should write next.

Because I want to write stuff that is honest and true, that is me on paper, which means more stuff like the K’Barthan Series. But if I’m going to write more K’Barthan style madness, I need to do something alongside that sells, to fund it. Or something that will, at least, be mainstream enough for the big indie sites, with thousands of followers, to risk actually putting it in front of them. That’s tricky, because I wouldn’t know what commercial was if it stood up and smacked me in the face with a haddock. Universal appeal, yeh, I can do that, but nobody wants that, it makes selling the books too difficult. They want the next big thing. Before it happens. They want stuff that sells. And I don’t know what that is.

Oh dear.

So it’s back to the brick wall. That’s right, the one I was hoping I could sidestep by self publishing my books and proving to the world… yada, yada, yada.

Because my stuff didn’t fit with publishers, but it doesn’t fit in with the indie gatekeepers either – except for Awesome Indies, who I, therefore, think are awesome.

So here’s my three step plan:

STEP 1: Find out what, exactly, is ‘wrong’ with the K’Barthan Series, somehow. I.E. find out why a publisher would say ‘no’ so I can avoid making the same mistakes in the next book.

STEP 2: Applying what I’ve learned, I need to write the most commercial novel of which I am capable and use it to fund any subsequent pieces of unmarketable whimsy.

STEP 3: Stick £10 a month away in my building society account. For all my hand-to-mouthness (yes I know, I spent everything I had on a car. It’s definitely my fault) I won’t notice it’s gone. I have discalculia, for heaven’s sake! And in a year’s time, when I’ve written my next book, there might be enough cash to publish it at the usual loss and eventually there might be so many books that the sales income they generate can fund another one, anyway.

STEP 4: Write some shorts and experiment with putting 20,000 novellas into things like KDP Select on a rolling basis, which, hopefully, will introduce my work to a whole new bunch of readers who have no access to it now, and who will buy all my other books (and then music will play and there’ll be smeary shots of me dancing, crying with joy, through falling rose petals-) Sorry. Got a bit carried away there.

Held in reserve, steps 5 and 6.

STEP 5: Find a publisher who will make me rewrite and rewrite and rewrite my next piece of unmarketable whimsy until, together, we turn it into something marketable. This is a hugely unappealing prospect because I can’t imagine a publisher thinking any differently about my books from the agents and the big hitter review sites. Which means thousands of pounds on postage and years and years of being told, politely, to fuck off and trying to put a positive spin on it. But I might manage it, and if I do, it will open many closed doors, and I’ll learn a huge amount.

STEP 6: Crowd fund the next book? Eeesh. I guess there’s Unbound, but do I have the time or charisma to undertake the social media activity required to drum up… well any votes? Let alone enough for them to publish a book.

Which brings me back round in a circle to the question ‘how do I make my work commercially viable?’ The biggest problem I face lies my answer to that question: ‘I like it the way it is.’

So that’s the nub of it. Do I attempt to be the Kate Bush of writing and try to make it on my own? Only with rather less talent and no help in the offing from any literary equivalent of David Gilmour. Do I keep on struggling and hope that somehow, one day, my work stands up? That I can find a way to walk the line between being true to myself and bang on the money. Or do I try to sing something more mainstream, in a slightly less squeaky voice, about a bog standard subject to see if the Polydors of the writing world will accept it?

Very tricky question. And one to which, right now, I have no answer.

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What makes a good bad guy?

Recently, as my thoughts turn to planning a new book, I’ve been wondering what makes a good baddie? If you see what I mean.

In my current w.i.p. the baddie is a politician, and I suspect, he will be not so much evil as morally bankrupt. To make things right, our hero will have to manipulate things so that the politician, in getting what he wants, will unwittingly deliver justice for the goodies of the book. In so far as there are any. A bit more like real life then, even if it’s set in space.

But I do want my villain to be bad. And while you can fiddle with the circumstances and the dynamics; on their own, they don’t always make the actual being evil. So I’m trying to work out if I want my latest bad guy to be greedy and selfish and incidentally evil or whether I want to go for a full on supervillian: a being who is intelligent, pointy-brained, and who plans (and revels in) his malevolence. The first is more real, the second an absolute gas to write and great fun to hate.

To get my head around concepts and ideas of ‘evil’ versus ‘bad’ or just ‘greedy’ I have turned to current affairs. I find current affairs intensely distressing if I look them directly in the face. Even so, they seem to be even worse than usual right now. There’s nothing like a bit of economic trouble to bring out the hatred in all of us it seems.

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Here we are in a modern and supposedly enlightened world and the various peoples of The Book are still trying to kill one another with gusto – and anything else that comes to hand.

We have an organisation of people pretending to be Muslims who believe half the population is shameful and valueless. It’s better to be a goat than a woman under the Taliban. After all, even their livestock can roam freely to find food. But if the male folk in a woman’s family die, the honourable thing for her to do is stay at home and starve to death rather than go out into the world unchaperoned to buy supplies. Yes that’s how much a woman is worth to them. Nothing. Because having kids and periods makes us unclean – Lord above if ever there was a bit of biblical health and safety advice that went big time wrong it’s that bit – oh and we don’t have a cock to think with, which makes us bad. And heaven help us, the Taliban seem quite moderate compared to ISIL, the Islamic State.

And then you get Israel which has had it’s foot on Palestine’s neck for years and just. Won’t. Lift. Off.  I wouldn’t pretend to be able to fathom Middle Eastern politics, there is no knowing Who Started It because the fighting there began at the dawn of time. I’ve read enough of the The Book – Old Testament/Torah/Koran – to appreciate that. But historically, countries like Britain, America and Russia have exacerbated the problems in an already volatile area for their own gain; fanning the flames of enmity, promising everyone what they wanted and delivering it to no-one: for years. And in return we get ISIL, the Islamic State. I guess it kind of serves us right.

Then… enter the ‘Christian Right’ and holy smoke, there’s an oxymoron if ever there was one – who vilify women and single mothers, not to mention the poor. They justify the hatred-filled crap they spew as the word of God when all it’s about is power and more money for them. I thought god was supposed to be a loving father – you know, ‘love they neighbour as thyself’ and all that – not a psychopathic, vengeful shit-head. Maybe I’m wrong. It would be funny if there wasn’t an actual, realistic chance of these people gaining power in America, a country which looks, from the outside, as if the political choice is between rabidly conservative and a few steps to the right of Atilla the Hun.

And when I turn on the news and see the latest venom-filled cleric screaming spittle-flecked hatred in the name of whichever version of God they purport to believe in, I confess I feel contempt. Contempt for someone who uses their intelligence, or presence, or social standing to persuade others to maltreat people in the name of a supposedly loving god. And contempt for the brainwashed sheep who follow them.

Which is where it all starts, of course.

The minute we stop seeing extremists as human beings, we become like them. Because that’s what they’re doing to us. That’s how they can justify massacring whole towns, that’s how they can justify institutional peadophelia – selling 12 year old girls into sexual slavery because they dare to get an education: learn to read, learn to think, is peadophelia in my book. No wonder extremism is so attractive to every tinpot fuckwit with a Kalishnikov. What better excuse for violence, bullying and sexual depravity than ‘god told me to do it’? Even if it’s patently, bollocks. I really feel for the world’s quiet, moderate people of faith, who have to put up with people thinking that nutters like the Islamic State and the Christian ‘Right’ represent religion.

What the angry rationalists fail to realise is that using religion to manipulate people is a completely different from having an actual faith. I suppose that’s what a lot of the K’Barthan Series is about: that just because the extremists are in power, it doesn’t mean everyone is one. Even so, it seems that nothing is more guaranteed to make you despise and kill your neighbour than a jolly good argument as to whose philosophy you should employ to go about loving him. Weird isn’t it?

You know, I wanted to make my villain female in this next book – think Servalan out of Blake’s 7 – but, in light of the state of world affairs, I really don’t think I can. There’s enough hatred directed at us women without my making one of us a love-to-hate baddie. The saddest thing is that every time I make stuff up, on the grounds that it’s chillingly evil, I find someone, somewhere, is already doing it.

Servalan: Scary baddie from Blake’s 7 Image: from http://jasonnahrung.wordpress.com

Stepping off the soap box and dragging this back to the point, apart from depressing me profoundly what does the state of world affairs have to do with writing credible bad guys?

In a nutshell, because what current affairs show us is that contempt is the key. A good look at history is an excellent place to start if you want to analyse the subtleties of evil. All you need to do then is give your baddie a healthy dose of idealism at the expense of any practical consideration whatsoever. He doesn’t have to be all-other-beings-are-inferior-my-pawns-to-be-used-and-discarded, supervillain bad. All he has to do is believe, passionately that the ends justifies the means and forget that the populations of the nations he is playing with are actual real humans. There are many faces of evil and often one begets another. So you can have some seriously bad karma starting off with deeds done with good intent.

Hmm… for all his supercilious air I think I prefer the supervillain like Lord Vernon. At least he’s honest.

So, what are your thoughts folks? Who’s the baddest of the bad? Love-to-hate superbaddie or vainglorious politician. More to the point, which one do you most like to see in books?

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